Is Email Still A Viable Channel For Your Center?

Todd Marthaler, Interactive Intelligence
Todd Marthaler, Interactive Intelligence

Everywhere you turn, there is a new app or a new social media tool popping up on smartphones, tablets and laptops. In turn, customer service is becoming more about what you have done for me now, not in one hour, four hours or one business day. It is just not enough!

Phone calls may still be the preferred method of communication, but more companies are looking at chat, texting and SMS as additional options. Why? They offer real-time, immediate service—much like a phone call, right? Sure… at least, that is the perception.


According to Frost & Sullivan 48% of customer interactions are fully automated, which is expected to grow to 60% by 2016.

There is another form of customer communication that I haven’t mentioned yet: email. Many companies offer a generic email address for service, but view it as a necessary evil. “Everyone else offers it; we should, too,” a contact center manager recently said to me.

A few months back, I was visiting with a CIO whose organization leverages phone calls as their primary point of customer interaction, but also uses email. The company doesn’t measure the service level nor response quality of their email channel. The CIO asked, “Is email a viable customer communication channel anymore?” This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that question. It is usually followed up with, “I talk to my customers on the phone, and I only use email from my personal box or a group proxy box to share docs with my customers.”

Trends in contact center channel preferences differ continent to continent. According to a recent Frost & Sullivan survey that examined customer contact strategies in the financial services vertical, “Significantly more current customer interactions are taking place through email in Europe than in North America, while more interactions are taking place through chat in North America than in Europe.”(“Customer Engagement in Financial Services in North America and in Europe,” August 2014). The same survey found that “about 48% of customer interactions are fully automated, which is expected to grow to 60% by 2016.”

So, as clear as mud? To email or not to email—answering this question requires careful consideration of the following:

  • What would my customer prefer, and how do I know?
  • How efficient is email as a customer service tool?
  • How quickly does my customer expect a response?
  • How do I measure service level for email?
  • How do I determine first-contact resolution through email?
  • Will email replace other customer interactions like phone calls?
  • How many email volleys is reasonable before I pick up the phone and talk to the customer?

Understand Your Customers’ Preferences and Expectations

Before we go further, let’s determine whether your customers would prefer email, as well as their service expectations. One way to find out is to ask them directly.

Find out what your customers prefer through a post-call survey, email survey or customer focus group. Here are some key questions to ask:

  • Would you like to communicate with customer service through email?
  • If yes, how quickly would you expect a response with resolution—two hours, six hours, one business day?
  • If no, which channel do you prefer (web chat, SMS, phone)?

In this survey, it is important that you tell your customers that you are looking into email as a service option and may decide to offer it if customers show a preference for email. That way, you’re not setting an expectation that you may not fulfill.

If you’re already offering email to customers, you can collect feedback about their service expectations by asking the following types of questions:

  • Are you happy with your email service today?
  • Are we meeting your expectations for response and resolution time?
  • If no, how quickly do you expect a response and resolution for your question?


If you receive a majority of positive responses from your customers indicating that they would like to communicate with customer service through email, set up a pilot program to determine whether email is a viable channel for your center. Consider the following steps:

  • Target a customer. You may have a customer (corporate or segment) who is willing to participate. This will allow you to control your audience and potential staffing needs.
  • Make sure that the customers you are targeting have valid email addresses.
  • Determine specific hours for offering email responses (e.g., 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday).
  • Determine the test period. Thirty days will usually provide enough data points for a viable sample.
  • Set up queues. Set up a dedicated group of agents to get a clear understanding of demand and productivity.
  • Identify potential agents to participate in the test period. Provide appropriate response templates and training to ensure consistency.
  • Identify success measures for the pilot: service levels, agent productivity, and impact to other channels (e.g., did email replace volume for any other channels, such as phone, traditional mail, web chat, etc.), number of email exchanges necessary to complete the transaction with an individual customer.

If your pilot is successful, you might expand the email offering to a larger audience. If your pilot is not successful, consider conducting another pilot with a different customer segment.


Setting Service Level Goals

If your surveys and pilot program determine that your customers prefer to use email and that it’s a viable channel for your operation, you’ll need to set service level goals for email.

There is a distinct difference between responding to an email and resolving the customer’s issue. Many organizations use an autoreply message to let customers know that their email has been received. Within that message, one must be careful to establish a resolution time for the email. Once that response time is stated, it is important to meet those expectations—whether it is two, four, six hours or one business day.

What is a best-in-class service level for email? In this consultant’s opinion, it should be based on your customers’ expectations.

If you’re using an auto-response system that sends an immediate reply, that should not be counted as meeting service level. It is important that you have tools running in the background—a powerful ACD engine and CRM tools—that measure not only how quick your response times are, but how many actual interactions it took to resolve a specific transaction or question for a customer.

Keep in mind that surveys also are a powerful way to measure customers’ experience with the email channel. Your goal should be to determine how effective you are in meeting your customers’ expectations and hopefully reducing the number of interactions in takes to resolve a single issue or complete a transaction.

Once you are up and running with email, you need to ensure that you are measuring the quality of the response, as well. Your quality assurance and supervisory teams should be calibrating email responses with the same vigor that they apply to phone calls, chats or other interactions.

A Few Final Thoughts

Make sure that email responses to customers are clearly branded so that customers know the difference between a response from your contact center team and spam. However, if you use a template, ensure that the message is customized to address the customers’ needs and provide an appropriate resolution to their issue or question.

Remember: Just because a customer begins an interaction through email, it might not be the best communication channel in which to resolve the issue. Set a customer service protocol for escalating email interactions to another channel. For instance, should a customer email conversation extend beyond two exchanges, it may be time for the agent to pick up the phone and resolve over the phone.

Constantly fine-tuning your email channel will ensure that the service experience is more than simply acceptable to customers, should they choose to message you in that fashion. Keep your customers at the forefront in deciding how they would like to communicate with you, and drive for a complete quality experience regardless of the channel they choose.

Todd Marthaler is a Contact Center Consultant at Interactive Intelligence, with 20 years’ experience in contact center management and consulting.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline, http://www.contactcenterpipeline.com

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